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DeWitt: Though mishandled, commissioners had right idea with taxing districts for sheriff

 
Published Oct. 21, 2015

So Sheriff Al Nienhuis wanted to hear a "sorry" from Hernando County commissioners at last week's meeting.

The commissioners had dragged the crowd out, he suggested, and caused them to waste a precious Tuesday morning.

"Frankly, I think it's a disgrace," he said. "It's embarrassing … and I think it's not fair to them to do this, and I think the commission owes them an apology."

Why single out this moment when nothing was decided, no policy discussed? Why is it so revealing?

Because Nienhuis, not the commission, was the one who had asked those people to be there by way of his Facebook page. Told them what position to take and whom to take it to — namely, the commissioners.

So, blaming the commission for the crowd's appearance at the meeting looked like the work of a public official whose outlook has been severely skewed by a sense of entitlement.

Capturing that attitude is important because it pretty much describes Nienhuis since the start of this ugly budget battle.

Not that he was all wrong, mind you. Some commissioners were practically giddy in the days before last week's meeting, proud of themselves for hatching a surprise plan to impose special taxing districts to pay for Sheriff's Office functions.

They may have lost the war over this year's budget, but, boy, they'd get him back with this.

Really? They and their politically crippled commission chairman were going to face down Nienhuis?

No, actually not. Not even close. The taxing plan's haste opened it up to the sheriff's alarmist attacks. The commission's pathetic retreat last Tuesday just made it clear that, from now on, it can't touch Nienhuis.

Which is a shame because the majority of commissioners had one thing in their favor that no crowd of cheering residents and no ominous letters from Republican kingpin state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia could change: They were right.

They were right about the tax district plan.

It was not, as the sheriff said, two new taxes; it was new forms of the same tax.

It would have created inconvenience for the sheriff's existing bureaucracy; it would not, as far as I could see, have created the need for a whole new one.

With negotiations, there is no reason it would have shifted more tax burden onto the rest of us, no reason it would have cut into law enforcement.

And, no, it didn't limit transparency, but enhanced it, which is what the sheriff really didn't want. Residents could have seen exactly how much of their tax money goes to fund his office, just as they can for other county services, including fire protection.

The commissioners — with the exception of Jeff Holcomb — were also right in their overall aim with this budget, which was making overdue adjustments to spending priorities.

As the county's financial ship began to sink during the recession, commissioners rightly provided a lifeboat for the providers of an essential service, the Sheriff's Office. Though spending on law enforcement is hard to track because of the extra duties the sheriff took on during these years, it never faced the deep cuts of some other functions.

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Spending on parks and recreation, meanwhile, was slashed by more than half between 2008 and 2012, libraries by more than a third during roughly the same period.

Library hours, cut in 2009, have never been restored. The amount of money spent on books and other materials has plunged from nearly $500,000 in 2007 to a budgeted $174,000 (to be bolstered somewhat with state funds) this year.

The library staff does a great job, considering. But as a regular user, I think I've noticed the impact on shelves so full of gaps they look like smiles with broken teeth. Finding good books seems more frustrating, the waits for them longer.

A lot of you will think it silly to compare libraries to law enforcement. Not me. Libraries provide a wider range of services than ever, and are still just as well used, with far more than half of residents holding cards. Libraries remain a marker of a county's pride in itself, a mainstay of quality of life.

We have adequately funded the Sheriff's Office and its job of keeping the community from breaking down.

Now, it's time to spend some money building it up.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.